A Look at Astana from Bishkek

There is a saying “Kyrgyz and Kazakhs are brothers,” yet we still live with myths and stereotypes. Generally, we know a little about one another. Especially now, just like those neighbours in the apartment where you live for years and decades, but still do not know of those behind the wall.

imageEach of us already has our recent history; our parallel history does not even stretch back a quarter of a century. There is still much hidden. Talks and research are only beginning to be formed. There was a time when we were connected with common history, troubles, sorrows and destiny.

Today, each of us builds our nation in its own way, with different sets of resources and our own models and perceptions.

So, here I am for the first time in Astana. I can say that I have seen many cities, states and models of development. But this is a good old neighbour or brother whom you have known from childhood but ran away from to discover distant, exotic and big cities, in order to open something new for yourself away from your homeland.

Almaty is not far from Bishkek. It is a much acquainted, cozy and disciplined city. We are like classmates: different, but close and always within sight of one another.

And now Astana! I associate it with an unattractive little girl whom you knew in the past whom you suddenly meet again and she astonishes you with her beauty and majesty. Honestly, I had heard different opinions about the complexities, construction, wind and frost, the difficulties of moving around and so on. Having half an ear on it, you do not understand fully until you see it for yourself.

Our trip was spontaneous and unplanned. On the way from the airport, after a long journey while looking at the view from taxi, I questioned myself: With what can it be compared from all that I have seen? Probably with Shanghai. Yes, by the level of ambitions. An Asian city that woke up, stretchedandcheered immodestly, without complexes, and in full power.

If it is true that appearance reflects the inner self, the capital would be a city of a nation that builds and lives there. Astana and Kazakhs do not inhibit the scope of their dreams. In this city that is rapidly expanding geographically and vertically, a trend can already be seen. In my view, it is an ambition, a rational ambition of people who confidently claim greatness in the past and future. That is not easy to do. And it is twice harder for Kazakhs who as a nation survived the long colonial era, the tragedy of the Aral Sea, test sites and experiments with the cosmos. It is twice harder for a nation that first declared of itself and its being AZ-i-IA (a book of Kazakh author Olzhas Suleimenov) in what was then another, bigger country.

Here in Astana, I have a feeling that it is an architectural oasis in a desert steppe that escaped after a long, loud and powerful roar: a roar that reveals itself and its past. Only the strings of the dombyra (the national instrument) remembered and carried this voice, rolling and echoing through the steppes, in order to realise it later in this way.

From an academic point of view, Astana surprisingly combines two approaches: primordialist and constructive.

Its primordialism is expressed in the visual appearance of the city, its conceptual vision of itself as part of the great history of the steppe. The great steppe as a God-given promised land to Kazakhs and all that it consists of, including history, people, hoofs of horses, Zhuses (divisions of Kazakh khanate) and the epics of ancestors have been demonstrated in details and arrays.

Constructivism is the idea itself, its embodiment. The main objective of the entire project, in my opinion, is the refraction of almost age-old attempts to relegate these people to secondary roles, both internally and externally. It is an attempt to return former prowess, right and nation.

I think they succeeded. Kazakh brothers, I can sincerely say, viewing the city from the plane, that I, a Kyrgyz woman, was proud. It is an amazing feeling of admiration and pride for your blood brother. Yes, we are different, but we are family.

The author is head of the Polis Asia Analytical Centre.

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